Saturday 14 May 2016

Has the time come for a Brent Planning for People Forum?

The above statement was made by Brent Council in response to a discussion on the London Live TV channel on  the Lucozade Powerleague proposals for Kingsbury High School.

It has been received with some cynicism by local campaigners who have been at the receiving end of decisions made by the Planning Committee.

Reporting regularly on planning issues from Wembley Matters I have repeatedly seen residents go along to Planning Committee in the belief that their objections to applications will be taken seriously, only to come out having given their 2 minute speech, listened to the often barely audible proceedings, angered that the Committee had then tamely voted in favour of the developer.

Residents are now realising that the time has come to make links with others in the same predicament.

Recently there have been some more independent decisions by the Committee and the chair, Cllr Sarah Marquis, has stuck her neck out but this seems to have earned her the ire  of Muhammed Butt the Council leader.  The latest manifestation of that was his intervention to ensure that proposals from Quintain for the area around Wembley Stadium, in his own Tokyngton ward, were rushed through at two Planning Committees last week.

That doesn't sound as if the Planning Committee is 'separate from the Council' and appears to be an attempt to get the Planning Committee back into line.

One of the problems is the Council's policy of 'smoothing the way for developers' promoted by Andy Donald, former Director of Regeneration and Major Projects.

Brent Council is in effect a partner with Quintain in the redevelopment of the Wembley Stadium area through the Wembley Masterplan.  This presents difficulties for planning officers' and councillors' independence.

It was reported to me last week that one councillor had allegedly remarked, 'It's Quintain - we have to vote for it.'*

Last week Brent residents were by-standers as Brent Council, Quintain and the Football Association deployed all their resources and experts on a battle that will impact on residents for decades to come. Our voices were barely heard. When one particularly preposterous claim was made and I couldn't suppress a response, a Quintain suit turned round and told me to be quiet. I replied, 'No I won't - I live here.' The exchange summed up our powerlessness.

The Roe Green Village residents challenging Lucozade have found that their ward councillors offer no support and so have mounted their own public campaign while the rsidents challenging the Wembley twin Towers are appealing to Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor.

It is just not Quintain of course but a whole range of developers and multi-national companies as well as Brent Council itself that we are faced with - what they have in common is that they have the money, resources and time. Residents squeeze their research into spare time in the evenings and weekends and have to go through a rapid self-education process in planning law and procedures.

I think it is time to consider setting up an umbrella group that will bring individuals, residents associations and voluntary organisations concerned with these issues together so that experience and expertise can be shared and proposals made to reform the consultation and decision making processes in Brent Council.

In time the group could perhaps pool resources to get their own professional advice as well as hold a 'People's Panel' to consider particular planning applications.  It would be strictly non-party political.

What do people think?

* This is from a previous posting on changes to the Planning Committee Code of Conduct. The issue of pre-determination is particularly relevant:

Members of the Planning Committee are warned:

If a member does not abide by this Code the member may put the Council at risk of proceedings on the legality or maladministration of the related decision; and the member may be at risk of either being named in a report of the Audit and Governance Committee or Council; or if the failure to abide by the Code is also likely to be a breach of the Member Code of Conduct, of a complaint made to the Monitoring Officer.

The disclosure of 'disclosable pecuniary interests' is added to the requirements and members are told that decisions should not be influenced by the interests of Councillors or because of pressure exerted by applicants, agents or third parties. A new paragraph is inserted:

Members of the Planning Committee must take decisions in the public interest and take account of only of material planning considerations. They should not allow themselves to be influenced by members of the public and applicants, agents or third parties who might approach them and they should not be influenced by party politics.

My comment: There is something rather odd about having to take decisions in the public interest but also not being influenced by the public. This is reinforced by the duty to follow the 'rules of natural justice' and give people a hearing: 
The rules of natural justice include the duty to act fairly, the duty to give all those who will be affected by a decision the opportunity of a hearing before a decision is made; and the principle that no person should be a judge in his or her own cause. That principle means that members must be and be seen to be be impartial and without bias, and that members should not take part in any decision that affects their own interests.

A section of 'Bias and Predetermination' has been added:

Members should not take a decision on a matter when they are actually biased in favour or against the application, or when it might appear to a fair and informed observer that there was real possibility of boas, or where a member has predetermined the matter by closing their mind to the merits of the decision before they come to take it.

 ...A member taking part in a decision on a planning matters must be open to any new arguments about the matters up until the moment of a decision. A member should not comment or make any commitment in advance as to how they intend to vote which might indicate that they have closed their mind. Any planning decision made by a member who can be shown to have approached the decision with a closed mind will still expose the council to the risk of legal challenge.

The section on Interests has been amended to allow a member with a disclosable pecuniary interest to have a right to attend a meeting:

...where a member of the public has the right to attend the meeting, make representations, answer questions, or give evidence, then a member will have the same right. Once the member has exercised that right then they must withdraw from the room for the rest of that item and play no further part in the discussion or vote,

At present many planning decisions are made by officers alone but Council members have the power to 'call-in' decisions so that they will be decided by Committee. The Code is amended:

A member considering using the 'call-in' power should consider whether their objective could be achieved by an alternative means, for example by discussing the matter further with the relevant officer or facilitating a meeting between the objector and an officers, bearing in mind the additional cost to the council when a matter has to be considered by Committee. 

The key issue of planning submissions where the council is the applicant or landowner is covered by this paragraph:

Where the council itself is the landowner or planning applicant then a Planning member should consider whether he or she has had such a significant personal involvement in advocating or preparing or submitting the planning proposal that the member would be likely to be perceived as longer able to act impartially or to determine the proposal purely on its planning merits. A member would not be required to withdraw simply because they were, for example, a member of both the Cabinet, or a proposing committee, as well as the planning committee, However a member with a relevant portfolio or individual  responsibility for implementing a particular policy should carefully consider whether that role makes it inappropriate for them to participate in a particular planning decision.

My comment: Does this sufficiently deal with the wider conflict of interest over the Planning Committee being the  judge of the Council's own development schemes?


Anonymous said...

Wembley Matters is fast becoming the 'hub' where I think groups should start posting their comments and arrange to meet up. The passing of so many applications in a short space of time, is becoming extremely suspect and far too common. With Chair of Planning being absent from such an important application as the Quintain project, a decision should never have taken place and the meeting postponed. If this is what is happening on such a large application, it is no surprise that developments and smaller applications are being given the 'nod' without the communities in the vicinity even having inkling. Time for some action from local communities.

Dan said...

According to Wikipedia: 'A quasi-judicial body is an entity […], which has powers and procedures resembling those of a court of law or judge, and which is obliged to objectively determine facts and draw conclusions from them so as to provide the basis of an official action.’

As far as the Brent Planning Committee is concerned I fail to see how its members can objectively determine facts given that this would require a thorough understanding of each planning application and that of its underlying impacts and issues. I do not believe that current members of the planning committee have the aptitude, let alone sufficient time in the day, to determine facts objectively. Instead, committee members rely on the advice given by Brent planning officers. However, they also do not appear to have sufficient resources to assess applications properly. For example, it appears that for at least the past two years Brent Council has not had an ecologist to assess and validate its planning applications. So how could anyone at Brent Council or anyone on the Planning Committee realistically expect to be able to objectively determine facts on any planning matter impacting upon natural habitats? Well, I believe none of them can and this is just one of the many reasons why I personally consider Brent Planning defunct and not fit for purpose.

Also, I think one should be very realistic about the perceived independence of the Brent Planning Committee or council officers when it comes to large developers such as Quintain. As far as democracy and independence is concerned this appears to have been an increasingly unhealthy relationship for several years. For Cllr Butt as Leader of the Council to then continue singing Quintain's praises at each Brent Connects Forum appears just nauseating. Still, it does not seem to be a far stretch of the imagination that the Leader of the Council continues singing these praises (or more?) to his cabinet and all councillors which invariably includes the members of the Planning Committee. But it is here where we suddenly lose all transparency over planning at Brent: Write a letter to the Planning Committee Chair or one of its ordinary members and it sure gets seen as a formal approach to the quasi-judicial planning committee and logged as such. If the approach comes from someone within the same party I very much doubt that anyone would ever hear about this.

Anonymous said...

Dan,brings up some very valid points. I cannot help wondering what all the massive rapid development around the stadium is doing to the deep water flow in the area. This must be being affected and such natural flows diverted. This water has to go somewhere. The question is where? Any ideas??